April 13, 2011, 8:11 pm
Filed under: brave new world, departure lounge | Tags: ,

Tea, a pipe, the evening edition and … murder, please.  Or maybe to update it a bit: an evening in, popcorn, someone you love and a nice bloody murder movie.

Show us the body first, cut and cold, in the woods or splayed across a big chair in a living room, like the one I’m sitting in now, reading this paper or watching this movie.  Then bring in the detective, an outsider, foibles fully on display, with razor sharp wit, always on the move: assessing, searching, reasoning, intuiting, questioning, psychologizing, smoking.  We need foils and blockages, false turns, malevolent and coy personalities whose roles flip:  fool us again and again with each new revelation.  Now wind it tight in time:  a deadline against which the detective races.

What is the appeal of murder to the middle class?  There are two ways of looking at murder in a comfortable society:  as an aberration, or as a part of the system that maintains its ease.  It’s simple to accept murder as aberration; all of the sordid details and undesirable characters — the cops, the detectives, the murderer and even the victim — are totally foreign to our lives.  It’s the difference that fascinates us.  Detectives are agents who act on our behalf to quell the violence and return us to our ordered lives.  They are heroes of the culture:  Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Morse, Wexford, Miss Marple, Alleyn, Jonathan Creek, Jane Tennison, Inspector Rebus, Father Brown, Tom Barnaby, Bergerac, The Saint, Cadfael, Cordelia Gray.

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not mystical hocuspocus
January 25, 2010, 3:38 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Following is a curious interpretation of violence from the book Violence and the Sacred by the French philosopher Rene Girard.  It’s curious in that it claims that hope and social stability come through violence and not through peace.  The author says a sacrifice culture diverts and diffuses the animosity a brother holds against his brother.   The practice of killing animals keeps us from killing one another.   His daring claim:  that we are murderers if we don’t make use of ritual sacrifice.  How are we murderers?  By not diverting our impulses toward something extra human, we, by our very natures, perpetuate a human cycle of killing each other.

Here is the excerpt —

Violence is not to be denied, but it can be diverted to another object, something it can sink its teeth into.  Such, perhaps, is one of the meanings of the story of Cain and Abel.  The Bible offers us no background on the two brothers except the bare fact that Cain is a tiller of the soil who gives the fruits of his labour to God, whereas Abel is a shepherd who regularly sacrifices the firstborn of his herds.  One of the brothers kills the other, and the murderer is the one who does not have the violence-outlet of animal sacrifice at his disposal.  This difference between sacrificial and non sacrificial cults determines, in effect, God’s judgement in favour of Abel.  To say that God accedes to Abel’s sacrificial offerings but rejects the offerings of Cain is simply another way of saying – from the viewpoint of the divinity – that Cain is a murder whereas his brother is not.

A frequent motif in the Old Testament, as well as in Greek myth, is that of brothers at odds with one another.  Their fatal penchant for violence can only be diverted by the intervention of a third party, the sacrificial victim or victims.  Cain’s ‘jealousy’ of his brother is only another term for his one characteristic trait:  his lack of a sacrificial outlet.

According to Muslim tradition, God delivered to Abraham the lamb previously sacrificed by Abel.  This ram was to take the place of Abraham’s son Isaac; having already saved one human life, the same animal would now save another.  What we have here is no mystical hocuspocus, but an intuitive insight into the essential function of sacrifice, gleaned exclusively from the scant references in the Bible.

Violence and the Sacred, Rene Girard

August 18, 2008, 4:59 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Shame leads to violence.  It is like a contagion that at its induction freezes and isolates and traps; and over a lifetime eventually surfaces in rage.  Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame is structured around a real life event of shame:  a father in London kills his daughter, in the street, because she has slept with a white boy.  Rushdie changes the story for the book.  In it a father shames his daughter from birth, because he wanted to have a boy.  She becomes a lightening rod for shame with a capacity for holding more and more of it.  And the men around her match her capacity for being shamed with their own capacity for perpetuating it.  Eventually she takes a revenge of sorts, by seducing and decapitating four men.

Rushdie’s characters are metaphors for Pakistani politics in the 1970’s.  The phenomenon of shaming and its relationship to violence exists at the micro and macro level.  It is viral and corrupts an individual life and a state at the same time.

Here is a description of the topic of shame in the book, by Abdulrazak Gurnah.  You can read the entire article here.

Sufiya Zenobia is born a girl when Raza Hyder wanted a boy. At her birth, he rages at the medical staff as if somehow his anger will force them to change the baby’s gender. Sufiya Zenobia blushes for shame. From the moment of her birth, Sufiya Zenobia is made inadequate, shamed by her gender. As the novel progresses she comes to represent an unavoidable capacity for feeling shame while the world that dictates to her, the world of men, cannot restrain itself from shamelessness. Rushdie’s argument suggests a gendered sense of ‘honour’, a public sense in which men fraudulently disguise cynicism by investing honour in the conduct of women, in the process dictating to them, while conducting themselves with cruelty and self-indulgence. Women, who are required to submit to what has been invested in them and are made inadequate by this submission, feel shame. Sufiya Zenobia cannot prevent herself blushing for shame, and is a literal representation of this gendered condition, which is attenuated further by making her retarded by illness to a permanent mental age of a six-year-old. So her blushes, in other words, are not from a heightened moral sense but the metaphorical conditioning of her gender.

In Rushdie’s argument, humiliation and shame will inevitably lead to violence, which is as much about the oppression of women in Pakistan (and Islam) as about the whole society. It is Sufiya who demonstrates this argument. The first occasion is when she tears off the heads of 218 turkeys, ‘then reached down into their bodies to draw their guts up through their necks’ (Shame, p.138). Later, in the novel’s closing stages, she fulfils what this early outburst of prodigious violence promises. She tempts four nameless men to have sex with her, inverting the right of Muslim men to take four wives, then she pulls their heads off:

Shame walks the streets of night. In the slums four youths are transfixed by those appalling eyes, whose deadly yellow fire blows like a wind through the lattice-work of the veil. They follow her to the rubbish-dump of doom, rats to her piper, automata dancing in the all-consuming light from the black-veiled eyes. Down she lies […] Four husbands come and go. Four of them in and out, and then her hands reach for the first boy’s neck. The others stand still and wait their turn.(Shame, p.219)

Her humiliation at the hands of men who should have loved her, her father Raza Hyder and her husband Omar Khayyam Shakil, have turned her into a Beast. Rushdie celebrates Sufiya’s violence as liberation, or makes Omar Khayyam Shakil ponder along these lines, but the real force behind this figuration of women is not so much to suggest a route to fulfilment, but to issue a warning to the rulers of Pakistan. Out of the encounter of shame and shamelessness will come violence. Not surprisingly, Shame was banned in Pakistan, although it was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

From The Cambridge

take one child, her blood, a candle, some bread
April 27, 2008, 4:42 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Unbelievably, the nursery rhyme LondonBridge is Falling Down is connected with human child sacrifice. It seems rivers felt transgressed against by bridges and that the spirit of the offered child helped maintain functioning relations between the realm and governance of the city and that of the river. And, it wasn’t only the Thames that had a blood thirst: apparently quite a few European rivers developed refined, and costly, palates.

So, the child is set apart, taken from life, to mediate between human political need and the anger and unpredictability of a water god. I guess it’s the innocence and purity of the child that the river wants, a perfect substitute, or at least something as close to perfection as possible.  And, in theory,  a child fits that requirement well.

It makes me wonder whose family had to suffer, how that particular child was chosen, what was the relationship to society of the child and her parents before the murder, after the murder? One guess is low born, outcast, but just good enough (blonde curls?) to assuage the angry river.  A second could be zealous parents and possibly higher born. In either case, like religious parents who set aside one son for a lonely celebate life in the priesthood.

Except that she doesn’t mention the human sacrifices. It was apparently customary in the long ago and far away to secure a building or bridge through sacrifice to the deities of the area or river. The preferred offering involved children, their blood, or, if possible, the sealing in of a child with a candle and hunk of bread at the foot of the bridge. When the Bridge Gate at Bremen was demolished in the nineteenth century, the skeleton of a child was indeed found implanted in the foundations. Nor are songs about bridges falling down unique to Britain, with examples coming from Italy, France, and Germany. The idea behind the sacrifice was that the spirit of the youngster looked over the bridge using the light and stayed awake by eating the food.

In Romania it was believed that the sacrifice of a person’s shadow to a building or bridge would do the trick. People would be enticed to stand over the foundation and their shadow measured. This written measurement was then buried with the foundation stone. Sadly, it was also believed that the person whose shadow was buried in such a fashion would die within forty days of the building’s completion. So-called “shadow traders” still existed in Eastern Europe until the nineteenth century, and people would shout out warnings to those passing freshly erected buildings to beware in case someone stole their shadow. These are interesting, if gruesome, legends, but there is scant evidence linking London Bridge specifically to such practices.

“Rivers and child sacrifice,” you might scoff. “Dark Ages stuff!” Except that in the twenty-first century such practices still take place. On 21 September 2001, the headless torso of a young boy was found floating near Tower Bridge. He had been used as part of something called a muti ceremony, in which the body parts of a child are used for medicinal purposes or to bring good fortune to a business enterprise. Police throughout Europe believe that there have been perhaps a dozen such cases .

~from Heavy Words Lightly Thrown by Chris Roberts, Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA).